How United Airlines’ Uses ‘Rhapsody’ to Entice First-Class Passengers

Misery loves company, and the 3.1 billion air passengers a year expect such company during air travel. From the minor gymnastics routines air passengers perform to get through security to reports of seats getting smaller, air travel has never felt more miserable for the average economy flier. But for first and business class passengers? It’s just getting better and better for the ones willing (and able) to pay more (re: comfy seats, leg room, priority boarding, etc.)

In-flight entertainment is no exception. In an age where air travel from one airline to the next feels indistinguishable, brands look to original content and other perks to make the lives of their first and business class passengers that much better. For United Airlines and United Express—which claims to carry more passenger traffic than any other airline in the world—they’ve created the exclusive and branded publication Rhapsody to separate themselves from the pack. As United Airlines’ managing director of marketing and product development said to The New York Times, “The high-end leisure or business-class traveler has higher expectations, even in the entertainment we provide,” he said.

Unlike United’s other in-flight entertainment magazine Hemispheres, Rhapsody doesn’t feature an airplane map or list of in-flight meals. Instead, Rhapsody is a luxury lifestyle and culture magazine printed exclusively for the brand’s luxury passengers and are only available in the premium cabins and lounges of United Airlines. According to its media kit, the magazine reaches a “highly affluent, influential” global travelers known to spend $20,000 on cabin tickets. With a circulation of 2 million readers for every monthly issue, the luxury magazine attracts A-list and elite covers of only the finest art and entertainment, business, fine dining and luxury shopping experiences.

But where Rhapsody has really found their niche is in highbrow, luxury magazines by publishing original works from more than 30 literary fiction authors, including the likes of Joyce Carol Oates, Anthony Doerr, Rick Moody, Karen Russell, Emily St. John Mandel and Emma Straub. (The authors are rumored to include benefits like free air and travel accommodations as well as access to having affluent readers buy their books).

With a small staff of seven, Rhapsody relies on freelancers and literary talent to fill their magazine’s 80-something pages. And advertisements. Lots of luxury advertisements to supplement the costs of luring pricy talent to their screens. Thus, the magazine ups its prestige factor—in which their luxury passengers can read exclusive fiction from literary stars—and helps shed the “in-flight” label.

"There's nobody that's looked down their noses at us as an in-flight magazine," said Sean Manning, the magazine's executive editor. "As big as these people are in the literary world, there's still this untapped audience for them of luxury travelers.”

Elsewhere in the magazine, readers can find profiles on A-list actors, business execs, chefs and unique travel destination articles to explore. The general theme? Elegant, elite, exclusive. "We want to be a beautiful, engaging read every month," says senior editor Hunter Slaton, who describes the publication to Mediabistro as "a high-minded yet accessible luxury lifestyle magazine for travelers of discerning taste."

From the caliber of the content, maybe Rhapsody is worth that first-class ticket after all.

What We Can Learn from Rhapsody

  • Narrow down your target audience to optimize “niche.” United Airlines knew they wanted to great “upscale” content for their upscale passengers. To do that, they used Rhapsody to create highbrow content from literary stars, as they knew the ideal reader would a) be affluent and b) well-educated. Rhapsody understands their audience, in part, because they understand their customers.
  • Content is more than just content—it's an experience. Yes, Rhapsody exists to provide exclusive literary content to United Airlines' first-class and business-class passengers. However, it's also a way to provide an extra value and service to United Airlines' air services. In addition to comfy seats and exclusive lounges, Rhapsody is used as leverage to make their air services more enticing. It's not content for content's sake, but for the brand's sake.

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